Critics of police unions stress that the unions have far too much power, and contend that robust protections give many police officers a sense of impunity.Photograph by David Butow / Redux
Police unions have long had a singular—and divisive—place in American labor. What is different at this fraught moment, however, is that these unions, long considered untouchable, due to their extraordinary power on the streets and among politicians, face a potential reckoning, as their conduct roils not just one city but the entire nation. Since the nineteen-sixties, when police unions first became like traditional unions and won the right to bargain collectively, they have had a controversial history. And recent studies suggest that their political and bargaining power has enabled them to win disciplinary systems so lax that they have helped increase police abuses in the United States.
A 2018 University of Oxford study of the hundred largest American cities found that the extent of protections in police contracts was directly and positively correlated with police violence and other abuses against citizens. A 2019 University of Chicago study found that extending collective-bargaining rights to Florida sheriffs’ deputies led to a forty per cent statewide increase in cases of violent misconduct—translating to nearly twelve additional such incidents annually.
In a forthcoming study, Rob Gillezeau, a professor and researcher, concluded that, from the nineteen-fifties to the nineteen-eighties, the ability of police to collectively bargain led to a substantial rise in police killings of civilians, with a greater impact on people of color. “With the caveat that this is very early work,” Gillezeau wrote on Twitter, on May 30th, “it looks like collective bargaining rights are being used to protect the ability of officers to discriminate in the disproportionate use of force against the non-white population.”
Other studies revealed that many existing mechanisms for disciplining police are toothless. WBEZ, a Chicago radio station, found that, between 2007 and 2015, Chicago’s Independent Police Review Authority investigated four hundred shootings by police and deemed the officers justified in all but two incidents. Since 2012, when Minneapolis replaced its civilian review board with an Office of Police Conduct Review, the public has filed more than twenty-six hundred misconduct complaints, yet only twelve resulted in a police officer being punished. The most severe penalty: a forty-hour suspension. When the St. Paul Pioneer Press reviewed appeals involving terminations from 2014 to 2019, it discovered that arbitrators ruled in favor of the discharged police and corrections officers and ordered them reinstated forty-six per cent of the time. (Non-law-enforcement workers were reinstated at a similar rate.) For those demanding more accountability, a large obstacle is that disciplinary actions are often overturned if an arbitrator finds that the penalty the department meted out is tougher than it was in a similar, previous case—no matter if the penalty in the previous case seemed far too lenient.
To critics, all of this highlights that the disciplinary process for law enforcement is woefully broken, and that police unions have far too much power. They contend that robust protections, including qualified immunity, give many police officers a sense of impunity—an attitude exemplified by Derek Chauvin keeping his knee on George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, even as onlookers pleaded with him to stop. “We’re at a place where something has to change, so that police collective bargaining no longer contributes to police violence,” Benjamin Sachs, a labor-law professor at Harvard, told me. Sachs said that bargaining on “matters of discipline, especially related to the use of force, has insulated police officers from accountability, and that predictably can increase the problem.”
For decades, members of the public have complained about police violence and police unions, and a relatively recent development—mobile-phone videos—has sparked even more public anger. These complaints grew with the killings of Eric Garner, Laquan McDonald, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, and many others. Each time, there were protests and urgent calls for police reform, but the matter blew over. Until the horrific killing of George Floyd.
Historians often talk of two distinct genealogies for policing in the North and in the South, and both help to explain the crisis that the police and its unions find themselves in today. Northern cities began to establish police departments in the eighteen-thirties; by the end of the century, many had become best known for using ruthless force to crush labor agitation and strikes, an aim to which they were pushed by the industrial and financial élite. In 1886, the Chicago police killed four strikers and injured dozens more at the McCormick Reaper Works. In the South, policing has very different roots: slave patrols, in which white men brutally enforced slave codes, checking to see whether black people had proper passes whenever they were off their masters’ estates and often beating them if they did something the patrols didn’t like. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a historian at Harvard, said that the patrols “were explicit in their design to empower the entire white population” to control “the movements of black people.”
At the turn of the twentieth century, many police officers—frustrated, like other workers, with low pay and long hours—formed fraternal associations, rather than unions, to seek better conditions—mayors and police commissioners insisted that the police had no more right to join a union than did soldiers and sailors. In 1897, a group of Cleveland police officers sought to form a union and petitioned the American Federation of Labor—founded in 1886, with Samuel Gompers as its first president—to grant them a union charter. The A.F.L. rejected them, saying, “It is not within the province of the trade union movement to especially organize policemen, no more than to organize militiamen, as both policemen and militiamen are often controlled by forces inimical to the labor movement.”
After the First World War, millions of workers began protesting that their wages lagged far behind inflation, and many police officers got swept up in the ferment. In 1919, Boston’s city police applied to the A.F.L. for a charter; they were angry about their meagre salaries and having to pay hundreds of dollars for uniforms. The police commissioner, Edwin Upton Curtis, forbade his officers from joining any outside organization other than patriotic groups, such as the American Legion. The police proceeded to unionize, and Curtis suspended nineteen of the union’s leaders for insubordination. When most of the city’s fifteen hundred police officers walked off the job, rioting and widespread looting engulfed the city. Curtis fired eleven hundred strikers, and Calvin Coolidge, who was then the governor of Massachusetts, supported his hard line, saying, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime.” Coolidge’s stance thrust him into the national spotlight. He went on to serve as Vice-President and President.
For decades, that stance deterred police unionization. But, in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, with private-sector unions winning middle-class wages and solid benefits for millions of workers, police officers again started rumbling for a union. Their fraternal orders weren’t doing enough; the police wanted collective bargaining. Officers became increasingly impatient, and militant. In the early sixties, police engaged in a work slowdown in New York and a sit-in in Detroit.
In 1964, New York’s mayor, Robert F. Wagner, Jr., blessed a compromise between his police commissioner and the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. The P.B.A. renounced the right to strike and was recognized as the bargaining agent for the city’s police. Wagner had previously agreed to bargain with other municipal unions, but he had held off with the police, because of its singular role and of fears that officers might strike. (The National Labor Relations Act of 1935—sponsored by Wagner’s father, Senator Robert F. Wagner, Sr.—gave most private-sector workers a federal right to unionize and collectively bargain, but left it up to individual states and cities to decide whether to grant the same rights to government employees.) As a full-fledged union, the P.B.A. didn’t wait long to declare war against any push for increased accountability. In 1966, New York’s new mayor, John V. Lindsay, after being pressed by the Congress of Racial Equality, added four civilian members to the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board; the original three members were deputy police commissioners. Then, as now, many African-Americans complained about police misconduct. The P.B.A., which renamed itself the Police Benevolent Association last year, bitterly resisted adding civilians to the board. When the City Council held a hearing on civilian review, the union mounted a five-thousand-member picket line in protest. The P.B.A. then organized a public referendum aimed at eliminating the board. It put up posters showing a young white woman exiting a subway and heading onto a dark, deserted street. “The Civilian Review Board must be stopped,” the poster read. “Her life . . . your life . . . may depend on it. . . . [A] police officer must not hesitate. If he does . . . the security and safety of your family may be jeopardized.” As the vote approached, the P.B.A.’s president, John Cassese, had played on racial divisions, declaring, “I’m sick and tired of giving in to minority groups with their whims and their gripes and shouting.” Lindsay, the American Civil Liberties Union, and New York’s two senators—the Republican Jacob Javits and the Democrat Robert F. Kennedy—opposed the P.B.A.-backed referendum. In a humbling defeat for liberals, sixty-three per cent of New Yorkers voted to abolish the review board.
Across the U.S., a similar dynamic played out. First, many cities followed New York’s lead and agreed to bargain with their police unions. Initially, newly established unions focussed on winning better wages and benefits. A major recession in the early eighties and the anti-tax fervor of the Reagan era caused budget crunches in many cities. Local leaders told police unions and other public-sector unions that they had little money for raises. In turn, the police demanded increased protections for officers facing disciplinary proceedings.
Since the eighties, police contracts in New York and many other cities have added one protection after another that have made it harder to hold officers accountable for improper use of force or other misconduct. Such protections included keeping an officer’s disciplinary record secret, erasing an officer’s disciplinary record after a few years, or delaying any questioning of officers for twenty-four or forty-eight hours after an incident such as a police shooting. “They have these unusual protections they’ve bargained very hard for, measures that insulate them from accountability,” William P. Jones, a history professor at the University of Minnesota and the president of the Labor and Working-Class History Association, told me. Jones said that other public-employee unions have some of the same protections but that police unions “are particularly effective utilizing them in their favor.”
In 2017, a Reuters a special report on police-union contracts in eighty-two cities found that most required departments to erase disciplinary records, in some cases after only six months. Eighteen cities expunged suspensions from an officer’s record in three years or less. Anchorage, Alaska, removed demotions, suspensions, and disciplinary transfers after twenty-four months. Reuters also found that almost half of the contracts let officers accused of wrongdoing see their entire investigative file—including witness statements, photos, and videos—before being questioned, making it easier for them to finesse their way through disciplinary interrogations.
Joseph McCartin, a labor historian at Georgetown, told me that one political factor explains why police unions have won so many protections. “They have more clout than other public-sector unions, like the teachers or sanitation workers, because they have often been able to command the political support of Republicans,” he said. “That’s given them a big advantage.”
The string of police killings captured on mobile phones increased public dismay with police unions. After the killing of George Floyd, they became a pariah. Many protesters, and even some unions, including the Writers Guild of America, East, have called on the A.F.L.-C.I.O., the nation’s main labor federation, to expel the International Union of Police Associations, which represents a hundred thousand law-enforcement officers. The Association of Flight Attendants adopted a resolution demanding that police unions immediately enact policies to “actively address racism in law enforcement and especially to hold officers accountable for violence against citizens, or be removed from the Labor movement.” The Service Employees International Union, with two million members, has called for “holding public security unions accountable to racial justice,” and the Seattle area’s main labor coalition issued an ultimatum to the local police union: acknowledge and address racism in law enforcement or risk being kicked out.
If the A.F.L.-C.I.O. expelled the International Union of Police Associations, it would be a huge blow to police unions. So far, Richard Trumka, the federation’s president, has balked at kicking out a member union, saying that it’s best to work to reform unions from inside labor’s tent. “The short answer is not to disengage and just condemn,” Trumka said. “The answer is to totally reëngage and educate,” to improve police unions.
Suddenly, it seems, there are countless proposals to make police unions more accountable. Campaign Zero, a reform group, wants to eliminate many of the due-process protections that the police have won. Javier Morillo, a former president of a Twin Cities union that represents thousands of janitors, wrote an unusually sharp critique of a fellow union, the Minneapolis Police Federation: “Until we see big, fundamental and structural change in the [police] department and the union, Black and brown residents of Minneapolis cannot feel safe.” Morillo wrote that, “for decades, arbitrators have relied on bad precedent” to “justify overturning discipline against officers.” Paige Fernandez, the A.C.L.U.’s policing policy adviser, said that community members should join city officials at the bargaining table during police-contract negotiations. “There should be public input from communities that have been historically overpoliced, black communities and low-income communities,” Fernandez said.
Benjamin Sachs, the Harvard labor-law professor, argues that the union movement needs to join the push for police reform. “When unions use the power of collective bargaining for ends that we . . . deem unacceptable it becomes our responsibility—including the responsibility of the labor movement itself—to deny unions the ability to use collective bargaining for these purposes,” he wrote. “We have done this before. When unions bargained contracts that excluded Black workers from employment or that relegated Black workers to inferior jobs, the law stepped in and stripped unions of the right to use collective bargaining in these ways.” Sachs proposes amending the law to curb the range of subjects over which police unions can bargain, perhaps even prohibiting negotiations over anything involving the use of force.
Some labor leaders warn that conservatives are using today’s outrage against police unions to promote their long-term agenda of hobbling or eliminating public-sector unions. “Everyone should have the freedom to join a union, police officers included,” Lee Saunders, the president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, wrote. “The tragic killing of George Floyd should not be used as a pretext to undermine the rights of workers.”
Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, told me that it’s important to persuade police unions to stop vehemently defending every police officer who is accused of misconduct. She pointed to her own union’s past. “Our position used to be that the member was always right, that, whatever happened, you did everything in your power to keep the member’s job,” she said. “It didn’t matter if you knew there was a problem.” She added that as public anger mounted against this hard-line approach—many said that it was shortchanging children—local A.F.T. branches moved away from rigidly defending every teacher accused of misconduct or poor performance. Weingarten told me, “Ultimately, if we are members of our community, we have to hold ourselves to a standard of treating people respectfully and decently, and misconduct has no place in that.” McCartin, the labor historian, told me, “Police unions haven’t done nearly as much as the teachers to counter the perception that they’re indifferent to the public’s concerns. They can learn a lot from the teachers.”
Last week, Patrick Yoes, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police, the nation’s largest law-enforcement group, told NPR he agrees that reforms are needed. “We welcome the opportunity to sit down and have some meaningful, fact-based discussions on ways to improve the law-enforcement community,” Yoes said. But some police-union leaders are less amenable to reform. Last week, Michael O’Meara, the president of the New York State Association of P.B.A.s, said, “Stop treating us like animals and thugs and start treating us with some respect. . . . We’ve been vilified.”
Mindful of the Black Lives Matter protests, many mayors and cities will seek to push through contract changes in the next round of police bargaining, but no one should expect police unions to roll over. Many police-union officials believe that the harder the line they take in defending officers (and ignoring the public’s concerns) the better their chances of being reëlected by their members. As a result, the unions’ critics might have a better shot at winning reforms through city councils and state legislatures. O’Meara’s remarks make clear that police unions often have an us-against-the-world view. The question now is whether police unions will get the message that they shouldn’t think only of protecting their members, that they should also think of the original purpose of labor unions: protecting all workers—in other words, protecting the public.